here are the questions!
here are the questions!
The murderer was thus reintegrated into society. In the Middle Ages, a common devotion and vision of the world held people together and made it near impossible for anyone present to think that Gilles de Rais was faking. There was a tiny minority of non-believers in Europe, but “atheism” did not exist socially. A common belief in a transcendent being (God) was the condition for the social reintegration of the deviant (who still had to be put to death for society to find peace with itself again). Also, at the time, such acts could only be committed by a man who stood by birth above others: Gilles de Rais was one of Brittany’s largest landowners, not a XXIst century serial killer. Now the days of mass religious communion are gone. A future human society would unify people from the inside reality of their lives, thanks to something experienced between themselves in this world and recognized as such, without
in France, American citizenship grew with them. We are now witnessing the Americanization of the capitalist developed world, that is, at least in Western Europe and Japan.
For a World Without Moral Order
The present article is an introduction to a critique of social mores, a contribution to the necessary task of revolutionary anthropology. The communist movement possesses a dimension both of class and of humanity. Although the central role of the proletarian worker is at the foundation of that movement, and although that movement works toward human community, it is neither a form of workerism nor of humanism. For the time being, reformism lives off separation by the accumulation of demands in parallel spheres, never calling the spheres themselves into question. One measure of the potency of any communist movement is (or should be) its capacity to recognize, and in practice to go beyond the gap or contradiction between the dimensions of class and of community.
This gap and this contradiction flourish in the ambiguities of our emotions and make a critique of social mores an especially delicate matter.
What follows is not an article about “sexuality,” which, like economy or work, is an historical and cultural product. Like work and economy, sexuality was born as a specific sphere of human activity under nineteenth-century capitalism, when it was honed down and theorized (discovered), then made banal by the capitalism of the twentieth century. Within the totality of a communist existence, it can be superceded.
For the same reasons, this is not a “critique of daily life,” which would apply to that social space excluded by work and in competition with it. “Mores,” on the contrary, include the entire range of human relationships in their emotional aspects. They are no stranger to material production. (Bourgeois family values, for example, cannot be dissociated from the work ethic.)
Since capitalism, in its own way, sums up the human past which produced it, there is no revolutionary critique without a critique of social mores and ways of life preceding capitalism, and the way they have been absorbed by it.
LOVE – ECSTASY – CRIMELOVE
If one can believe Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, “the most natural relationship between man and man is the relationship between man and woman.” This formula may be understood and applied inasmuch as we keep in mind that the history of man is that of his emancipation from nature by the creation of the economic sphere. The idea of man being anti-nature, completely external to nature, is clearly an aberration. Man’s nature is at once a pure biological given – we are primates – and his activity as man modifying the pure biological given of himself and outside himself.
Man is not outside natural conditions, since he is part of them. But he wants to understand them and he has begun playing with them. One can debate the mechanisms which brought this about (the extent to which it resulted from difficulties of survival, especially in temperate regions, etc.) but one thing is certain: By transforming his environment and then, in turn, being transformed by it, man has placed himself in a position radically different from any other known state of matter. Once unburdened of metaphysical presuppositions, this ability to play somewhat with the laws of matter is precisely what constitutes human freedom. Stripped of this freedom – since it went to feed economy – as he produced it, man must now reconquer it without deluding himself about what freedom is. It is neither the freedom of unfettered and ever-surging desire, nor the freedom to follow (who could decipher?) Mother Nature’s commandments. Full rein must also be given to this freedom to play with the laws of matter – whether one is talking about changing the course of a river or the sexual use of an orifice not naturally “intended” for the purpose. Finally, it must be understood that risk is the only guarantee of freedom.
Since human freedom must be given full rein, a critique of human mores must not hold up one practice or another as a symbol of impoverishment. It has been written that in the modern world freedom, as pertains to social mores, is limited to masturbatory activity (alone or with one or more partners). To limit oneself to this given is to misunderstand the essence of sexual impoverishment. Must we belabor the point? There are solitary jerk-offs infinitely less sordid and impoverished than many gropes in the dark. Reading a good adventure novel can be much more exciting than a group tour. The real impoverishment is living in a world where adventure only exists in books. Whatever one person daydreams about another, whether or not he acts on it, it is not disgusting. The disgusting part is all the conditions that must be fulfilled for one person to meet another. When, in the personal ads, a bearded man invites the old lady and her dog who live upstairs from him over for a good time, it is neither the beard nor old age, nor bestiality we find disgusting. What is really repulsive is that, by the publishing of the ad in Libération, the bearded man’s desire has become a sales pitch for a particularly nauseating ideological commodity.
Alone in one’s room drafting a theoretical article, inasmuch as that article provides some handle on social reality, one is less isolated from his fellow man than riding the subway or at work. The essence of sexual sordidness and impoverishment does not reside within one or another sexual activity, although the predominance of one activity may be symptomatic of that impoverishment. It is rather to be found in the fact that, whether alone, with one other person or ten other people, the individual is irremediably separated from humanity by relationships of competition, fatigue and boredom. Fatigue provoked by work, boredom with roles, boredom also with sexuality as a separate activity.
Sexual impoverishment is first and foremost social constraints – the constraints of wage-labor and its morbid litany of psychological and physiological hardships – which operate on a sphere presented by mainstream culture and its counter-culture flipside as one of the last frontiers in the world where adventure is still possible. Sexual impoverishment is also, to the extent that capitalist and Judeo-Christian society imposes itself upon him, man’s profound helplessness before what western civilization has made of sexuality.
From Stoicism, dominant world view of the Roman Empire, Christianity adopted the two-fold idea that, on the one hand, sexuality is the basis of all pleasure and, on the other hand, it can and must be controlled. Eastern cultures, by an open affirmation of sexuality (and not only in the bedroom) tend toward a pan-sexualism whereby sex must, of course, be controlled but by the same token as everything else – it occupies no special place. Western culture doesn’t mistreat sexuality by forgetting about it, but by thinking of nothing else. Everything is made sexual. Judeo-Christian society’s fascination with and organization of sex is by far more terrible than its repression and suppression of sex. Western culture has made sex into not only the hidden truth of normal consciousness, but of madness (hysteria) as well. At the outset of moral crisis, Freud discovers that sexuality is the great secret of the whole world and of every civilization.
Sexual impoverishment is a seesaw struggle between two moral orders, the traditional and the modern, which more or less reside together within our contemporary brains and glands. On the one hand, one suffers from the constraints of the old moral order and work, which prevents one from attaining the historical ideal of sexual and amorous fulfillment. On the other hand, the more one liberates oneself of these constraints (or imagines one does) the more that ideal seems hollow and unsatisfying.
A tendency and its spectacular representation, taken together, do not constitute a totality. While a relative liberalization of mores characterizes our era, the traditional moral order has not disappeared. Just try being openly pedophile. The traditional order still functions and will, for a good portion of the population in industrialized nations, go on functioning for a long time. In many parts of the world (Islam, Eastern bloc countries), it is still dominant and harmful. Even in France, its representatives (priests of Rome and Moscow) are far from inactive. The weight of the suffering caused by their misdeeds is great enough that we will not be forbidden to denounce them in the name of the fact that it is capital which undermines the foundation of traditional moral order. It isn’t true that any revolt against this order tends toward neo-reformism. Revolt can also be the cry of the oppressed creature, containing the seed of an infinite variety of sexual and sensual practices repressed for thousands of years by oppressive societies.
It should be clear by now that we are not opposed to “perversions.” We’re not even opposed to life-long heterosexual monogamy. Nevertheless, when litterateurs and artists (the surrealists for example) hold out l’amour fou (“mad” love) to us as the sum of desirable, we are obliged to recognize that they are buying into the modern west’s great reductive myth. This myth is meant to provide an extra helping of soul to couples, isolated atoms which make up the best foundation for the capitalist economy. Among the riches which would be reaped by a humanity rid of capital are the unlimited variations of a perverse and polymorphous sexuality and sensuality. Only when those practices are allowed to flourish will “love,” such as André Breton or Jacqueline Suzanne sing its praises, be exposed for what it is – a transitional cultural construction.
Traditional moral order is oppressive and as such it deserves to be criticized and fought against. But if it is in crisis, it isn’t because our ancestors had less taste for freedom than our contemporaries. Rather, it is because bourgeois moral rules are revealing their inability to adapt to modern conditions of production and circulation of commodities.
Bourgeois moral order, which took on its full scope during the nineteenth century and was handed down through religion or lay education, was born out of the need for an ideological extension of industrial capitalist domination at a period when capital was not yet totally dominant. Moral rules for sex, family and work went hand-in-hand. Bourgeois and petit-bourgeois values served as a platform for capital – property as the fruit of labor and savings, work as terribly hard but necessary, family life. In the first half of the twentieth century, capital came to occupy the entire social space. It became indispensable and unavoidable. Wage labor was the only activity possible since there wasn’t any other. That is how, even as it is foisted upon all of us, wage labor can have the appearance of non-constraint, a guarantee of liberty. Since everything is a commodity each moral rule winds up obsolete. We own property before saving, thanks to credit. One works because it is practical, not out of a sense of duty. The extended family gives way to the nuclear family, which in turn is upset by constraints of money and work. Schools and media vie with parents for authority, influence and upbringing. Everything that The Communist Manifesto foretold has been accomplished by capitalism. As public places where working class people live out their lives become more and more scarce, replaced by consumer centers (discos, malls) which don’t have the same emotional character, too much is being asked of the family precisely when it has the least to offer.
Underlying the crisis in bourgeois moral values there is a deeper crisis of capitalist morality. It’s hard to establish “mores,” to find ways of relating and behaving with one another which go beyond a bankrupt bourgeois morality. What morality does modern capitalism provide for people? Its submission of everyone and everything, its omnipresence theoretically make prior support systems superfluous. Fortunately, this doesn’t work. There is not now and never will be a wholly, purely, uniquely capitalist society. For one thing, capital creates nothing out of nothing. It transforms beings and relationships born outside of it (urban migrators, petits-bourgeois déclassés, immigrants) and something always remains of former social relations, at least in the form of nostalgia. In addition, the actual workings of capital are anything but harmonious – it can’t keep its promise of a Madison Avenue dream world and this provokes a reaction, a falling back on traditional values which are largely outmoded, like the family. Which explains the phenomenon that people keep getting married while one out of every three or four marriages ends in divorce. Finally, because it has to direct, constrain, and bully wage laborers, capital must constantly reintroduce the prop values of authority and obedience that its present phase makes obsolete. The result is the constant use of old ideology in conjunction with new (participation, etc.)
Our era is that of the coexistence of moral orders, of proliferation of social codes and not their abolition. Guilt (the incessant fear of violating a taboo) is juxtaposed with angst (the feeling that one lacks guideposts for the “choices” to be made). Neuroses and hysteria, the historical maladies of a bygone era, are replaced by narcissism and schizophrenia.
What guides our contemporaries’ behavior is less and less a whole set of commandments passed along by the paterfamilias or the priest and which cannot be called into question, but rather a sort of utilitarian moral order for individual fulfillment, aided by a fetishization of the body and a frenzied psychologizing in which interpretation-mania takes the place of confession and examination of conscience.
Ahead of his time, de Sade simply foretold ours – one of the disappearance of any moral guarantee, before man becomes himself. Sooner or later one experiences the same intolerable boredom in reading the marquis’ monotonous catalogue, as when reading the personal ads with their infinite repetition of the forms of a pleasure without communication. Sadeian desire aims to completely reify other people, to make them into a clay out of which he can cut his fantasies. Annihilating otherness, refusing to be dependant on someone else’s desires is a morbid attitude – it means the repetition of the same thing, and death. But, while the Sadeian hero needs to smash social restraints, modern man and his logic of individual fulfillment becomes his own fantasy clay. Rather than getting carried away by his desires, he “realizes his fantasies.” At least he tries to, as one goes “jogging,” instead of running for pleasure or because one has to be somewhere in a hurry. Modern man doesn’t lose himself in his partner – he operates and develops his capacity for carnal pleasure, his aptitude for orgasm. Whipless tamer of his own body, he tells it, “Come!” or “Come harder!” or “Run!” or “Dance!”
For modern man, the obligation to work is replaced by the obligation to successful leisure time, sexual constraints by the difficulty in asserting a sexual identity. Narcissistic culture goes hand in hand with a new function for religion: instead of evoking transcendence, it smoothes, in part, the way through critical periods in life – adolescence, marriage and death. Indeed, to become modern religion isn’t enough – he also needs the help of the family! Here’s how a psychologist (C. Lasch, Le Monde, April 12, 1981) talks: “Not an over-present family, as in the nineteenth century, but an over-absent one. It is defined not by the work ethic or sexual constraint but by ethics of survival and sexual promiscuity.”
In the midst of the moral crisis facing western society, man is less equipped than ever to resolve “the issue of sex.” It is precisely when this issue is addressed in all its naked glory that one has the best chance of understanding that it is, in fact, a non-issue.
Sex, brow-beaten for two thousand years, only emerges to become a commodity, the victim of an all-consuming commodification – sending modern man, all the more lost, into a panic. In a world of commodities, the unbridled pursuit of sensuality (such as in La Grande Abbuffata, [Blow-Out] 1973) sets the individual even farther apart from humanity, from his partners, from himself. Once the idea of sex as alienating and deadly reemerges, in the end, we fall back on Christianity.
The work of a Georges Bataille (1897-1962), for example, is revealing of this evolution in western society since 1900. Running counter to the history of civilization, Bataille starts from sexuality and works back to religion. From the work of fiction Story of the Eye (1928) until the end of his life, Bataille spent all his time exploring what was implicit in the eye. He crosses paths with the revolutionary movement and rapidly and easily moves away from it – especially since this movement practically disappeared. Nevertheless, he had time, in the late thirties, to take up positions with respect to antifascism and the threat of war, the lucidity of which is in sharp contrast with the verbiage produced by the vast majority of the extreme left. This explains the ambiguity of his work. It can be used as an illustration of the religious dead-ends where the experience of unbridled sexuality pushed to the extreme inevitably leads:
“A brothel is my true church, the only one unsoothing enough.” (Le Coupable, published in 1944.)
Although here, as in most of his work, he settled for going to the opposite extremes of accepted values, honing down a new version of Satanism, he did also write some lines revealing great intuition about essential aspects of communism: “taking perversion and crime not as exclusive values but as things to be integrated into human totality.” (April 4, 1936.)
Through the cultural constructions to which they have given birth (love as in Ancient Greece, courtly love, systems of kinship, the bourgeois contract, etc.) our emotional and sexual lives have always been at once source and object of passion and conflict, as well as crossroads with another cultural sphere – the sacred. In trance, in ecstasy, in the feeling of communion with nature, human aspiration to go beyond the limits of the individual is expressed in the form of paroxysm. Diverted toward the cosmos or divinity, this aspiration to become one with the species has until now worn the prestigious rags of the sacred. Religion in general, and monotheism in particular, have set narrow limits around the sacred, assigning it a guiding role while distancing it from human life. While in primitive societies the sacred is inseparable from daily life, statist societies, on the contrary, have made it more and more specialized. Capitalist society has not liquidated the sacred, but repressed it. Multiple residual and ersatz manifestations of the sacred continue to encumber social life. Faced with a world where old religious artifacts and mercantile banalization coexist, the communist critique is two-pronged – it must desacralize, i.e., smoke all the old taboos out of their hiding places, and it must prepare to supercede the sacred where capitalism has only degraded it.
Desacralization then, of areas where old goblins have gone to hide – like the pubis, for example. Against penis worship, against the penis’ conquering imperialism, feminists have found nothing better than the fetishization of the vagina. Backed up with piles of literature and pathos, they have made it the seat of their difference, the dark fold wherein their very being is to be found. Rape then becomes the crime of crimes, an ontological assault. As if a penis penetrating a woman by violence were more disgusting than forcing a woman into wage slavery by economic pressure. True, in the first case the guilty party is easily found – he is an individual – whereas in the latter case the guilty party is a social relationship. It’s easier to exorcize one’s fears by making rape into blasphemy, an intrusion into the holiest of holies. As if being manipulated by advertising, constantly physically abused at work, numbered and filed by government agencies were less profoundly violent in their assault on a person than imposed intercourse.
Ultimately, what makes the Somalian rip out his wife’s clitoris and what drives the feminists flows from a common conception – for both, it is conceivable that human individuality may constitute the object of ownership. The Somalian, convinced that his wife is part of his livestock, feels duty-bound to protect her from feminine desire, a dangerous parasite for the economy of the flock. But, in so doing, he truncates, impoverishes his own pleasure, his own desire. The woman’s clitoris is the symbolic target of all human desire, regardless of gender. This mutilated woman has been amputated from all of humanity. The feminist who cries out that her body belongs to herself would like to keep her desire for herself. But when she desires, she enters into a community where appropriation dissolves.
The claim “My body is my own” would give substance to the 1789 “Rights of Man.” Hasn’t it been repeated often enough that these rights merely apply to an abstract man and that, ultimately, the bourgeois individual (in contemporary terms, “white, male, over 21 and bourgeois”) is their sole benefactor! Neoreformists claim they close this loophole by gathering up real substance and giving it to this hitherto abstract “man.” In sum, the “real rights” of “real man.” But “real man” is none other than woman, Jew, Corsican, homosexual, Vietnamese, etc. “My body is my own” toes the line of a bourgeois revolution forever being completed, perfected by asking democracy to have content instead of only form. In the name of the cause, they critique the effects.
Demanding ownership of one’s individual body is a renewal of the bourgeois demand for the right to own property. To escape the secular oppression of women, once (and still, in other forms) treated by their husbands as property, the feminist has found nothing better than the broadening of the right to own property. May the woman own property as well, thus she’ll be protected – and good fences make good neighbors! In this pitiful demand, we see the reflection of the “security” media and political parties would at all costs share among our contemporaries. The demand is born of an outlook stopped up on the inside, whereby private appropriation is the only means imaginable to be master of a thing (in this case, one’s body.) Our bodies belong to those who love us, not by virtue of any legally guaranteed “right,” but because we live and move, flesh and feeling, only as a function of them. And, inasmuch as we can love the human species, our body belongs to it.
Even as it desacralizes, the communist critique must denounce the capitalist utopia of a world where one could no longer love to death, where everything flattened out, everything would be of equal value and exchangeable. Practicing sports, fucking, working would all take place in the same quantified time, sliced like a salami – industrial time. Sexologists would be on hand to fix any faltering libido, psychotherapists would rid us of any suffering of the psyche, and the police, with the support of chemistry, would prevent any stepping out of line. In such a world, no sphere of human activity – which because it could become the object of a game in which the stakes are the whole of life – would give another rhythm to time.
The ahistoric illusion which is the foundation of mystical practices is dangerous. By definition, only that part of these practices which isn’t really theirs is of interest to us – that which can be communicated. One doesn’t step outside of history, but history, whether it be that of the individual or that of the species, isn’t the pure linear movement which capitalism works to produce and works at making people believe it produces. History includes apogees which go beyond and outside of the present, orgasms which are a losing of oneself in the other, in sociality and in the species.
“Christianity gave substance to the sacred but the nature of the sacred (…) is perhaps the most elusive thing that happens between people. The sacred is nothing but a privileged moment of communial oneness, the convulsive communication of what we ordinarily stifle.” (G. Bataille, The Sacred)
This moment of “communial oneness” can be found today at a concert, in the panic gaining a crowd and, in its most degraded form, in great swells of patriotism and other sporadic outbursts of the union sacrée. Manipulate it, and you can do any dirty deed. One may presume that in a modern war, unlike what happens in backward capitalist nations such as Iran, only a minority would actually participate. The rest would only watch. But nothing is for certain – the manipulation of the sacred may have some good days left in it, because the sacred, to date, has been the only powerful moments offered as manifestation of man’s irrepressible need for togetherness.
As much as they have furnished a more or less imaginary niche outside of class struggle, mystical practices have been known to cement revolts. This is demonstrated, for example, by the role of the Taoist trance in the resistance of central power in imperial China, voodoo in slave uprisings, or millenarian prophecy. Although contemporary mystical pursuits play a counter-revolutionary role because they are merely one of many ways the bourgeois individual turns inward, the fact remains that mercantile banalization of every aspect of life tends to empty existence of its passion. The world we live in asks us to love only a jumbled bunch of individual inadequacies. Compared to traditional societies, this world has lost an essential dimension of human experience – the powerful moments of oneness with nature. We are condemned to watch pagan festivals on TV.
But it would be ridiculous for us to advocate a return to the past, to its joys which, history has taught us, are repetitive, cause of illusion, and short-sighted in character. When capital tends to impose its exclusive reign, looking elsewhere than revolution for “communial oneness” and “convulsive communication” becomes purely reactionary. That capital has made everything banal gives us the chance to liberate ourselves from that specialized sphere known as “sexuality.” We want a world where being carried away, out of oneself, exists as a possibility in all human activities – a world which holds out the species to love, and individuals whose inadequacies will be those of the species and no longer those of the world. The stakes of the game today, what is worth risking death, what could give another rhythm to time is the content of life in its entirety.
“History makes no sense – and it’s a good thing it doesn’t. Would we torment ourselves for a happy outcome, for a final celebration paid for wholly by our sweat and our disasters? For future idiots leaping about on our ashes? The vision of a paradisiacal culmination surpasses the absurdity of hope’s worst wanderings. The only excuse one can find for Time is that we find some moments more enjoyable than others, accidents without consequence, in an intolerable monotony of perplexities.” (E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay)
Communism is not a paradisiacal culmination.
First of all, identifying communism as a paradise means one can accept anything in the meanwhile. In the case of a social revolution, one accepts that society is not changed from top to bottom – a stateless society, without prisons – fine, later… when men are perfect. In the meantime, everything can be justified. Worker state, people’s prisons, etc. – since communism is only good for a humanity of gods.
Next, there is a soothing vision of a desirable society which is a turnoff to desiring it. Every community, regardless of its size, requires that its members renounce a part of themselves. And, if one defines “positive desires” as those which, if realized, would not compromise the liberty of others, every community forces each member to leave certain of these unsatisfied. The reason is simple: these desires are not necessarily shared by the other member or members. What makes this situation tolerable is the certainty that anyone who feels that these renouncements threaten the very integrity of his being would still have the possibility of leaving. Leaving would not be painless, but isn’t the risk of pain and death indispensable to the full measure of a meaningful life?
That humanity, playing with matter, risks self-annihilation and with it annihilation of all life on the planet, is not what bothers us. What is unbearable is that humanity does this in utter thoughtlessness and practically in spite of itself, because it has created capital and capital has imposed its own inhuman laws upon it. It is nevertheless true that once man begins modifying his environment, he does so at the risk of destroying it and himself along with it, and that this risk would probably subsist in no matter what social organization. One could even conceive of a humanity which, after first struggling with, then taming and loving the universe, would decide to disappear, to reintegrate nature in the form of dust. In any case, there is no humanity without risk, because there is no humanity without others. The play of human passions also bears this out.
It is relatively easy to imagine that a world less severe would give women and men (men, who since the bourgeois revolution have been condemned to wear only work clothes!) a chance to be more attractive, to be at once simpler and more refined in their seduction. At the same time, however, one can’t help yawning at the idea of a world where everyone would be attractive to everyone else, where one fucks like one shakes hands, without any implied commitment. (Liberalization of mores, make no mistake, promises just such a world.) Realistically then, Jenny will still like Karl more than she likes Friedrich. But one would have to believe in miracles to believe that never a Friedrich would desire a Jenny who doesn’t desire him. Communism does not in any way guarantee the reconciliation of all desires, and the tragedy of non-requited desire seems unsurpassable, the price to pay if seduction is to remain an enthralling game – not for any “no-pain-no-gain” old-fogey principle but because desire includes otherness and therefore its possible negation. There is no human or social game without stakes and without risk! That is the only norm which seems unsurpassable – unless our ape imaginations, still paying tithe to the old world, cannot fathom man.
What makes Fourier less boring than most of the other utopists is that, besides a very poetic and very extensive polling of possibles, his system allows for the necessity of conflict. We know that practically all of the accidents considered crimes by the old world are only sudden changes of ownership (theft), accidents of competition (the murder of a bank teller), or products of the impoverishment of social mores. But in a stateless society it is not unimaginable that the exacerbation of passions may lead one man to inflict suffering upon or kill another. In such a world, the only guarantee that one man wouldn’t torture another would be that he doesn’t feel the need to. But what if he does feel it? What if he finds torturing fun? Rid of such old models like “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” “a pound of flesh,” and the like, a woman whose lover has just been murdered, a man whose beloved has just been tortured, would, in spite of their sorrow, find it perfectly stupid to kill someone else or lock him away, as fantasy compensation for the lost they have endured – perhaps… What if a desire for revenge won out? What if the other person keeps on killing?
In the workers’ movement, the anarchists are probably among the few who have concretely addressed the question of a stateless society. Bakunin’s answer is not very convincing:
“Complete abolition of all degrading and cruel sentences, of corporal punishment and the death penalty as established and executed by law. Abolition of all indefinite or too-lengthy sentences which leave no possibility of rehabilitation – as crime must be considered a disease…”
Sounds like the Socialist Party line before they got to power, but what follows is more interesting:
“Any individual condemned by any society whatsoever, whether local, provincial or national, shall retain his right to refuse to submit to the sentence pronounced against him by declaring that he no longer wants to be part of that society. In that case, however, the society will in turn retain the right to eject the individual and declare him outside its guarantee and protection. The individual would thus be thrown back to the natural law of eye-for-an-eye, at least in the territory occupied by that society, and could be fleeced, mistreated, even killed without the society stepping in. Everyone else could cast off the refractor, like you would a harmful beast, although never could he be forced into servitude or enslaved.” (Bakunin, La Liberté)
The primitives shall not go unremembered in this solution. The individual who has transgressed a taboo is never again taken seriously. They laugh every time he opens his mouth, or he has to flee into the jungle, or he becomes invisible, etc. In any case, he is cast out of the community and therefore bound for an early death. If it’s a question of tearing down the prisons in order to build them back up again, a bit less harsh and better ventilated, then count us out. We shall always side with the refractor. What, after all, is a “too lengthy” sentence? One needn’t have wasted away in prison to know that time spent there is always too lengthy. However, if this is about replacing prison by an even more radical alienation, count us out all the same. As for treating crime as a disease, it’s an open invitation to a society under the absolute control of psychiatric argument and medication.
“Curiously, the basest of bandits can seem like a real nice guy the instant one stops taking things so seriously (and an adult not too prematurely old can rival the worst class cut-up in this domain). Is the social order at the mercy of a belly laugh? … Life is not all one big laugh, say teachers and mothers, and not without a note of hilarious earnestness. It’s news to the children… Nevertheless I imagine that in the poor mind darkened by this training a shining paradise is born in the crash of broken dishes… unbridled fun makes use of all the world’s products, every ruined object is there to be smashed like a toy.” (Bataille, Les Pieds Nickelés)
So what do we do with dish breakers? It is impossible, today, to answer this question and, even in a stateless society it isn’t sure a satisfactory answer can be found. The guy who won’t play along, who breaks the dishes, who’s ready to run the risk of pain and even death, simply for the fun of breaking off social ties. That is the risk, the probably unsurpassable risk run by a society which refuses to cast anyone, no matter how asocial, out of humanity’s midst. The damage done to the society would always be inferior to the damage done by making the asocial person into a monster. Communism must not lose its raison d’être to save a few lives, no matter how “innocent” they may be. To date, let’s admit, the mediations conceived to avoid or buffer conflict and maintain society’s internal order have caused oppression and human loss infinitely greater than those it was supposed to prevent or limit. In communism, no substitute state or “non-state” which would remain a state.
“The repression of antisocial reaction is as fanciful as it is objectionable on principle.” (“Letter to the Insane Asylum Head Doctors,” La Révolution Surréaliste, no. 3, April 15, 1925)
The issue is not pertinent only for a distant future. It is on the agenda at times of social unrest. Consider the looters and thieves of nineteenth-century riots, consider the moral order reproduced in them by these riots. In the same way, during the early part of the Russian revolution, a “Bolshevik marriage code” (the title alone speaks volumes) was juxtaposed with a powerful movement of transformation of social mores. From any more or less revolutionary period will spring gangs half way between social subversion and delinquency, temporary inegalities, hoarders, profiteers, but especially, a whole range of uncertain conduct which one would be hard-pressed to characterize as “revolutionary,” or “for survival” or “counter-revolutionary,” etc. Ongoing communization will resolve this, but only over one, two, perhaps several generations. Between now and then, we must prepare ourselves – not for a “return to order” which will be one of the key slogans of all antirevolutionaries, but by developing what makes the originality of a communist movement – essentially, it doesn’t repress, it subverts.
This means, first of all, that it uses only the amount of violence strictly necessary to obtain its goals, not out of moralism or non-violence, but because superfluous violence always becomes autonomous, becomes its own end. It also means that one’s weapon is first and foremost the transformation of social relationships and of production of living conditions. Spontaneous looting will no longer be a massive change of ownership, a mere juxtaposition of private appropriations, if a community of struggle is formed between looters and producers. Only on this condition can looting be the starting point for social reappropriation of riches and use of those riches in a context broader than plain and simple consuming. (Consuming, per se, is not to be denounced, since social life is not only productive activity. It is also consumption and consummation. If poor people wanted first to taste a few pleasures, who but the priests would hold it against them?) As for the hoarders, if violent measures are sometimes necessary, it will be to recuperate goods not for punishment. In any case, it is only by spreading the reign of freeness that they can be rendered completely harmless. What good is hoarding if money is only paper, if you can no longer sell what you hoard?
The more a revolution is radicalized the less it needs to be repressive. We make no bones about stating this especially since, for communism, human life in the sense of biological survival is not the supreme good. It is capitalism which offers this monstrous sucker deal: Be assured of maximal survival in exchange for maximal submission to economy. Yet isn’t a world where one has to hide in order to choose the hour of one’s death a terribly depreciated world indeed?
In communism, one doesn’t start from values set by a common accord but from the real relations in which one lives. Any group practices, refuses, allows for, imposes certain acts and not others. Before we have values, and in order to have them, there are things one does and doesn’t do, imposes and forbids.
In a contradictory class society, the forbidden is cast in stone and, at the same time, made to be moved around and violated. The taboos of primitive societies and, to some degree, those of traditional societies do not constitute a moral order as such. Values and taboos are constantly reproduced by every act in social life. As work and private life opposed one another more and more radically, the issue of social mores came to the fore, then, in 19th-century Europe with what the bourgeoisie called “dangerous classes,” became acute. On the one hand the worker must be considered free to go to work (in order to justify the capitalist’s freedom to refuse him work) and, on the other, moral order had to keep him mechanically sound by telling him that it isn’t good to get drunk and that work is his dignity. Moral order only exists because there are mores, i.e., a domain which society theoretically leaves up to the individual but which it constantly legislates from the outside.
Law, first religious and then state law, supposes its scoffing. That is the difference with communism, where there is no need for intangible law which everyone knows will not be respected. No absolutes, unless perhaps the primacy of the species, which is not to say its survival. No falsely universal rules. Like law, like ideology all moral orders rationalize after the fact. They always take themselves for, and purport to be the foundation of social life, but without foundation themselves, based only on God, nature, logic, social welfare… i.e., a foundation which doesn’t exist since it can’t be called into question. The rules that human beings would give themselves (in ways we cannot predict) in communism would flow from communist sociality. They will not constitute a moral order insofar as they will claim no illusory universality in time and space. The rules of the game will include the possibility of playing with the rules of the game.
“Revolt is a form of optimism which is hardly less repugnant than the usual kind. For revolt to be possible, it has to suppose the possibility of an opportune reaction. In other words, that there is a preferable order of things toward which we must strive. Revolt, considered as an end in itself, is optimistic as well – it goes on the premise that change, disorder is satisfying. I can’t believe that anything is satisfying.
Question: ‘In your opinion, is suicide only a lesser evil?’
‘Exactly, a lesser evil hardly better than having a profession or a moral code.’” (Jacques Rigaut, testimony in the “Barrès Affair,” 1921, Ecrits)
An entire body of nihilist literature has developed the “dish breaker’s” point of view, that of one who resists all social attachment and who, as a compulsory corollary, has a taste for death. But the nihilist thinkers’ lovely music never kept most of them from fading into the hubbub of daily life to a respectable age. This incoherency supports the idea that the pure refractor is only a literary myth. As for the rare individuals who, like Rigaut, chose the last resort of suicide, like Genet, who tasted true debasement, they lived out this myth like a passion. But if true and intransigent mystics have existed, that doesn’t prove the existence of God. These “refractors” are fodder for an elitism which is false right from the get-go. The worst of it is not that they believe they are superior, but that they think themselves different from the rest of humanity. They position themselves as observers of a world from which they are separate – but participation is prerequisite to understanding. Being on the outside, they would have it, is lucidity. But, as Bataille explains, they fall into the worst of traps:
“…I have never seen existence with the absent-minded contempt of the man alone.” (Œuvres)
“It is human tumult, with the stink and vulgarity of all its needs, big and small, with its strident disgust for the police that represses it – it is the frenzied activity of all men (excepting that police and the friends of that police) and this activity alone, which shapes the revolutionary mentality in opposition to the bourgeois mentality.”
The myth of the refractor has at times cluttered revolutionary theory – witness the Situationists’ fascination with outlaws in general and Lacenaire in particular, epitomized by Debord’s last appalling film. But if this myth must be criticized, it is also because it is the flipside of class society’s production of fascinating monsters, and so tends to validate it.
Upon this sea of zombies in which we swim, sometimes a shiver of passion goes, when citizens are served a radically foreign being, something which looks like a man, but whose real humanity is entirely denied. For the Nazi, it is the Jew. For the anti-fascist, the Nazi. For the mass of our contemporaries, it is the terrorist, the gangster, the killer of children. When the time comes to track these monsters down and determine their punishment, at last passions splash back to the surface and imagination, which we thought extinguished, takes off at a gallop. One can only regret that this type of imagination and its fine-tuning is precisely what is attributed to that other guaranteed-inhuman monster – the Nazi executioner.
Never could everyone be forced to respect a law in contradiction with the way relationships really work. Never could murder be prevented where there is a reason to kill. Never could theft be prevented where there were inegalities and where commerce is based on theft. So an example is made, by focusing on one particular case. Even more than that, we exorcize that part of us which would have wanted to be the executioner of those defenseless bodies or the rapist-murderer of those children. The share of envy in the hateful cries of the crowd no longer needs to be demonstrated. It is clear even to the stubbornly myopic eyes of the journalist.
Communism, on the contrary, is a society without monsters, because each person will finally recognize in the desires and acts of others, as many possible shapes of his own desires and humane existence. “The human being is the true “being-together” ” (Marx). The term “being-in-its-totality,” or collective being, express our movement even better than the word “communism” which is primarily associated with collectivizing things. Marx’ statement is worth developing extensively, and we will come back to it at another time. For now, suffice it to notice the critique of bourgeois humanism contained in the statement. While, thanks to the mediation of culture, the Montaigne-type honest man can be every man, the communist man knows from practice that he can only exist as he is because all others exist as they are.
This does not in any way mean that no desire must be repressed. Repression and sublimation keep one from plunging into a refusal of otherness. But communism is a society with no guarantee but the free interplay of passions and needs, while capitalist society is crazy for insurance and would like to provide a guarantee against every happenstance of life, including death. All possible risks and dangers should be “covered by insurance,” except “in case of absolute necessity” – war and revolution – and even then… The only event capitalism cannot insure against is its own disappearance.
When one sets about a global critique of the world, remaining on a purely theoretical level is unacceptable. There are periods when subversive activity is almost entirely reduced to the writing of papers and exchanges between individuals. Our discomfort is deployed in this “almost.” To continue having a lucid view of the world, one must be possessed of a tension it is not easy to maintain, as it implies refusal, a tending to the fringes, and profound sterility. This refusal, this tendency to the fringes and this sterility contribute as much to maintaining passion as it does to hardening it into misanthropic bitterness or intellectual mania. No act spun by social life is considered self-evident by one who refuses capital’s organization of the world. Not even manifestations of biological givens are exempt from his torment! Signing on to procreation seems suspect to him – how can one want to spawn in such a world, as long as one can’t make out the possibility of transforming it any time soon?
Nevertheless, outside of a few simple principles – not to participate in the machinery of mystification or repression (neither cop nor star), not to pursue a career – one can’t claim to precisely and permanently define the forms for refusal. For radical critique, there is no decent behavior. There is only some things more indecent than others and certain behaviors that mock theory. Thinking of oneself as revolutionary in a non-revolutionary period… What counts is less the result of this contradiction – unavoidably fragmented and crippling – than the contradiction itself, the tension of refusal.
What good is criticizing the sordidness of mores if it must remain? Our way of being only makes sense with respect to communism. In answer to Cioran’s quote which opened this section, it must be said that the truly unbearable sweat and disasters are those which don’t belong to us, which this world foists upon us. The only excuse we find for time’s killing us is history’s promise to avenge us. The meaning of our way of being is the possibility that social connection is guaranteed only by itself, and that it works!
If the social crisis worsens, there will be less and less room for half-way choices. Calling for “a little less police” will become less and less feasible. The choice will more and more be between what exists and no police at all. That is when humanity will have to show whether or not it loves freedom.
Love. Ecstasy. Crime. Three historical products through which humanity has lived out, still lives out its emotional practices and relationships. Love: consequence of indifference and generalized selfishness, seeking refuge in a few beings who have the advantage of chance and necessity. It is the impossible love for mankind which finds a poor excuse for an outlet in a handful of individuals. Ecstasy: a brief escape from the profane, the banal and into the sacred; fleeing and immediately captured and boxed in by religion. Crime: the only way out when the norm can no longer be respected or gotten around.
Love, sacredness and crime are ways to give meaning to the present in escaping it. Positive or negative, the three include both pull and repulse, in a relationship of attraction and rejection with respect to one another. Love is glorified but mistrusted. The sacred is by nature threatened with profanation – calling on it to exclude it and, at the same time, strengthening itself. Crime is punished, but it fascinates.
These three rides out of the ordinary run of days will not be any more made general than they are abolished by communism. Any life (be it collective or individual) supposes borders. But communism will be amoral insofar as it will no longer need fixed norms, exterior to social life. Ways of life and models for behavior will circulate, not without clashes and violence. They will be transmitted, transformed and produced at the same time as social relationships. As absolute separation between the inside and the beyond, the sacred will fade away. In this way, religion will no longer have its place, neither those of olden times nor those modern religions who have no gods but only devils to be cast out of the social midst. The liberty of man, his ability to modify his own nature, project himself beyond himself. Up until now, moral order, all moral orders – and all the more insidiously when they are not presented as such – makes these beyonds into human-crushing entities. Communism won’t level the “magic mountain.” It will do what’s necessary so as not to be dominated by it. It will create and multiply distant horizons, and the pleasure of losing oneself in them, but also the ability to foster new ones, which subverts the “natural” submission to any world order whatsoever.
To translate a text is enough to measure, word by word, both its breadth and its limitations – in the case of this article, its Franco-centrism. The disappearance of “public living places,” for example, is different in France and in Anglo-Saxon countries. The degradation of the Dublin or London pub can’t be compared to the losses sustained by the Parisian bistrot over forty years. As for the United States, luncheonettes, candy stores and diners don’t constitute poles of sociability resembling the French café. And even on the continent, while Paris sells her soul to Big Mac, Rome holds the line. The tendency to mercantilization of daily life is universal; it isn’t uniform.
The evolution of mores is probably no faster but certainly more readily perceived in a place where modernity is the oil floating upon an old Catholic vinegar. When the current occupant of the White House is in danger of blowing his job over a blowjob, it’s not because ethical values weigh more heavily in Washington than in Paris, but because the French do not traditionally accord the hoi polloi a say in matters of morality and public confession is not common practice. But in sniggering over the hypocrisy and archaism at work over the pond, the Parisian forgets that the Clinton scandals illustrate the pervasive triviality of TV democracy, a democratic moral order that modern Europeans, be they left or free market, are intent on imitating.
“For a World Without Moral Order” was written in 1983, during the backwash of the subversive wave of the sixties and seventies. Since then, things have only gotten worse. “Just try being openly pedophile,” we wrote. Sadly prophetic. Any form of child-adult love is instantaneously identified as child abuse, whether in its least “offensive” forms or its most atrocious – rape and murder. Parental love would be the only exception to this rule, but, alas, let us not forget that statistics cruelly demonstrate that a child is most at risk of sexual molestation inside that bastion of security known as “the family.” By the same logic, every heterosexual male ought to shake in his boots at the thought of Jack the Ripper, since this would be the ultimate result of all male-female attraction. (The dark cloud of this logic, indeed, seems to loom over current intersexual relations in whole sections of the U.S., to such a degree as to desexualize man-woman relationships.)
Over the course of the last fifteen years, capitalist society has become more visibly itself, answering social struggles and human demands with an array of monsters fresh off its assembly line. Consumer society gets rid of cars only by designating pedestrian areas which die every evening at closing time. Modern urban development can only accommodate motorist, cyclist, jogger, rollerblader, etc. by assigning each his own lane. Mores, unfortunately, adhere to the same each-his-own-lane model. The revolt against an all-too-real white male domination gave rise to the universally derided and almost universally practiced Politically Correct. Unable to change reality, it settles for euphemizing and separating realities, only changing the language.
Fifteen years of ever more crippling separation, invariably painted in the pleasing pastels of liberation. What is gay? A man who only goes out with men, convinced he will never feel the attraction of the opposite sex? How should he know? How can he exclude the possibility of being overwhelmed by the desire for and of a woman?
Gay fiction? Why not rearrange the bookstores along the lines of department store clothing (as is practically the case already in certain U.S. bookstores)? Put Virginia Woolf in Women’s, Shakespeare in Men’s (although the sonnets…) Lord Byron in the “Physically Challenged, Diet Addicted” section and any writer over sixty-five will see new works displayed in Senior fiction.
Granted, thanks to this gay-ity, the gay man feels safe from all-too-real discrimination. Different clubs, different neighborhoods, different literature, and last but not least a different vocabulary. How sad that, in order to escape age-old repression, millions could imagine nothing better than making up a category even narrower than the family, and founded only on the choice of sexual object: penis vs. vagina. Act is made into identity, definition into destiny, and sexual preference into a world vision (gay culture). While language does express social relationships, it is the latter that must be changed. And in the twilight of the 20th century, words are more easily modified than things.
“Be a nice girl and go make some coffee.” Is the sexism in the girl? Does this mean that a man who says “Girl, I love you. How about I make us some coffee?” loves and/or respects his partner any less than if he’d said woman? In reality, where intimate relations are concerned, intentions are rarely ambiguous. It is in the sphere of formality – polite terms, official appellations, workplace jargon – that there is a whole universe to be revolutionized if not abolished, and here lingual feminism aims merely to euphemize, desexualize, neutralize. What is gained by replacing girl with person? More or less what was gained in substituting Ministry of Defense for War Office, and soon thereafter giving up on the word altogether and saying only “M.O.D.” The acronym reigns, painless and incomprehensible to outsiders. Generalist language is a thing of the past.
By the way, what does communist express? Should the word be changed because for decades it served the inversion of a reality founded on the defeat of the workers’ movement? Or would it be better to give new life to the thing and thereby to the word? We, men and women who are not misogynous, feel no urgency to prove our femininophilia through appropriate language. Let’s let those sitting chair get excited about whether to say chairperson or chairwoman.
Whether Antonin Artaud gets thrown into the nuthouse, institutionalized, or worse, certified, the matter at hand is the psychiatric treatment of a human and social problem – should the asylum be a closed building or chemical restraints.
The enemy is what makes passive, what divides. Good fences make good neighbors. Autonomy is a fenced-in, private space within which I believe I am free to do what I mustn’t do outside it. From a state, feminism makes a border. “Hands off!” Whether intentionally or not, this contributes to individual parcelling, which requires a superior authority with the power to guarantee the rights of each (child, parent, man, woman, the old, the young, the gay, the consumer, the worker, the ill, the pedestrian, member of a minority, etc.) with respect to the others. For each right may be declared absolute, it is always relative with respect to others. “Absolutes are not cumulable,” as Jean Genet said it. And what redefines and referees the adding up of these relativities if not the power of the state? Privatization of life goes hand in hand with ever increasing judges and psychologists.
Humanity shall not liberate itself by slicing itself up, like liberated territories with poles to mark their borders. Revolution means going beyond all borders. It means superceding womanhood as well as manhood. Individuals getting private control over their lives, even over something as vital as their own bodies, is not a solution in itself. The only true solution is to create with others (of both sexes) relationships of a different nature, where one no longer fears nor risks domination. The point is not for women to be free of men, but free with them. The goal is not for each person to declare his independence, but that each may stop fearfully refusing to be dependent, interdependent. Liberty is a relationship.
One shortcoming of “For a World Without Moral Order” is probably that it doesn’t stress enough just how much usage and customs of a future world would surprise, even shock this one. Many dilemmas, fears and terrors, perennial or recent, would disappear. Others would resurge. This is not any more about getting to paradise than it is about soothing barbary.
Criticizing moral order is not a way of saying “Everyone do what he wants and thanks to human goodness all will turn out for the best.” The problem is not how to avoid conflict and norms, but to change the presently fallacious relationship to those norms. There is no other logic, no other meaning and so no other guarantee of my actions than my relationship with my fellow man. The goal – and the whole problem – would be, will be one day to live a norm not separate from my and from our actions.
 Un Monde sans morale, first published in the revue La Banquise (#1) in 1983, was originally translated by Michael William into English for publication in the Fall ’93 issue (#38) of the American magazine, Anarchy.
 See below excerpt from Frank Browning’s A Queer Geography pages 32-35.
 See also Bruce Benderson’s Toward A New Degeneracy (Edgewise Press, 1997).
we’re going to change it up this week, for the topic of anarchist conflict resolution, and listen to two episodes (conflict 1 and conflict 2) of the brilliant pod cast. the relevant parts start at 29:00 and 30:00 respectively, if you’re in a hurry.
this is a podcast by two study-group regulars who are currently out of town.
it will be a bit more challenging to refer to things that they said, since it won’t be in writing, so you’re encouraged to write things they say down, if they are interesting, confusing, or problematic.
here is the article referred to in conflict 2, “the politics of denunciation.” reading it will also make the conversation more interesting, probably.
our newcomer-sponsored reading is a chapter from Anarchy Alive! by uri gordon, a chapter that was originally published in WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society. uri is an academic who usually does a good job of reporting on anarchy in a non-jargoned, fairly unbiased way, so we’ll see how he does in this chapter.
These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it seem monstrous
To admire the tragic beauty they build.
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face,
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November,
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves,
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and kissing.
I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future … I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Robinson Jeffers, 1935
The end of the human race will be that it will
eventually die of civilisation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too care- fully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natu- ral disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.
What war correspondents and relief workers report is not only the fragility of the fabric, but the speed with which it can unravel. As we write this, no one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end. Meanwhile, beyond the cities, unchecked industrial exploitation frays the material basis of life in many parts of the world, and pulls at the ecological systems which sustain it.
Precarious as this moment may be, however, an awareness of the fragility of what we call civilisation is nothing new.
‘Few men realise,’ wrote Joseph Conrad in 1896, ‘that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’ Conrad’s writings exposed the civilisation exported by European imperialists to be little more than a comforting illusion, not only in the dark, unconquerable heart of Africa, but in the whited sepulchres of their capital cities. The inhabitants of that civilisation believed ‘blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion,’ but their confidence could be maintained only by the seeming solidity of the crowd of like-minded believers surrounding them. Outside the walls, the wild remained as close to the surface as blood under skin, though the city-dweller was no longer equipped to face it directly.
Bertrand Russell caught this vein in Conrad’s worldview, suggesting that the novelist ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ What both Russell and Conrad were getting at was a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile con- struction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.
Once that belief begins to crumble, the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable. That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.
It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight — Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.
This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.
Increasingly, people are restless. The engineers group themselves into competing teams, but neither side seems to know what to do, and neither seems much different from the other. Around the world, discontent can be heard. The extremists are grinding their knives and moving in as the machine’s coughing and stuttering exposes the inadequacies of the political oligarchies who claimed to have everything in hand. Old gods are rearing their heads, and old answers: revolution, war, ethnic strife. Politics as we have known it totters, like the machine it was built to sustain. In its place could easily arise something more elemental, with a dark heart.
As the financial wizards lose their powers of levitation, as the politicians and economists struggle to conjure new explanations, it starts to dawn on us that behind the curtain, at the heart of the Emerald City, sits not the benign and omnipotent invisible hand we had been promised, but something else entirely. Something responsible for what Marx, writing not so long before Conrad, cast as the ‘everlasting uncertainty and anguish’ of the ‘bourgeois epoch’; a time in which ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’ Draw back the curtain, follow the tireless motion of cogs and wheels back to its source, and you will find the engine driving our civilisation: the myth of progress.
The myth of progress is to us what the myth of god-given warrior prowess was to the Romans, or the myth of eternal salvation was to the conquistadors: without it, our efforts cannot be sustained. Onto the root stock of Western Christianity, the Enlightenment at its most optimistic grafted a vision of an Earthly paradise, towards which human effort guided by calculative reason could take us. Following this guidance, each generation will live a better life than the life of those that went before it. History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up. On the top floor is human perfection. It is important that this should remain just out of reach in order to sustain the sensation of motion.
Recent history, however, has given this mechanism something of a battering. The past century too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on Earth. Even within the prosperous and liberal societies of the West progress has, in many ways, failed to deliver the goods. Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before. They work longer hours, with less security, and less chance of leaving behind the social back- ground into which they were born. They fear crime, social breakdown, overdevelopment, environmental collapse. They do not believe that the future will be better than the past. Individually, they are less constrained by class and convention than their parents or grandparents, but more constrained by law, surveillance, state proscription and personal debt. Their physical health is better, their mental health more fragile. Nobody knows what is coming. Nobody wants to look.
Most significantly of all, there is an underlying darkness at the root of everything we have built. Outside the cities, beyond the blurring edges of our civilisation, at the mercy of the machine but not under its control, lies something that neither Marx nor Conrad, Caesar nor Hume, Thatcher nor Lenin ever really understood. Something that Western civilisation — which has set the terms for global civilisation—was never capable of understanding, because to understand it would be to undermine, fatally, the myth of that civilisation. Something upon which that thin crust of lava is balanced; which feeds the machine and all the people who run it, and which they have all trained themselves not to see.
Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history … for contemplation or in fact …
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
Robinson Jeffers, ‘The Answer’
The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is  evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.
Outside the citadels of self-congratulation, lone voices have cried out against this infantile version of the human story for centuries, but it is only in the last few decades that its inaccuracy has become laughably apparent. We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.
We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. Even through the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us.
And over it all looms runaway climate change. Climate change, which threatens to render all human projects irrelevant; which presents us with detailed evidence of our lack of understanding of the world we inhabit while, at the same time, demonstrating that we are still entirely reliant upon it. Climate change, which highlights in painful colour the head-on crash between civilisation and ‘nature’; which makes plain, more effectively than any carefully constructed argument or optimistically defiant protest, how the machine’s need for permanent growth will require us to destroy ourselves in its name. Climate change, which brings home at last our ultimate powerlessness.
These are the facts, or some of them. Yet facts never tell the whole story. (‘Facts’, Conrad wrote, in Lord Jim, ‘as if facts could prove anything.’) The facts of environmental crisis we hear so much about often conceal as much as they expose. We hear daily about the impacts of our activities on ‘the environment’ (like ‘nature’, this is an expression which distances us from the reality of our situation). Daily we hear, too, of the many ‘solutions’ to these problems: solutions which usually involve the necessity of urgent political agreement and a judicious application of human technological genius. Things may be changing, runs the narrative, but there is nothing we cannot deal with here, folks. We perhaps need to move faster, more urgently. Certainly we need to accelerate the pace of research and development. We accept that we must become more ‘sustainable’. But everything will be fine. There will still be growth, there will still be progress: these things will continue, because they have to continue, so they cannot do anything but continue. There is nothing to see here. Everything will be fine.
We do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be. Of all humanity’s delusions of difference, of its separation from and superiority to the living world which surrounds it, one distinction holds up better than most: we may well be the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth. This is a hypothesis we seem intent on putting to the test. We are already responsible for denuding the world of much of its richness, magnificence, beauty, colour and magic, and we show no sign of slowing down. For a very long time, we imagined that ‘nature’ was something that happened elsewhere. The damage we did to it might be regrettable, but needed to be weighed against the benefits here and now. And in the worst case scenario, there would always be some kind of Plan B. Perhaps we would make for the moon, where we could survive in lunar colonies under giant bubbles as we planned our expansion across the galaxy.
But there is no Plan B and the bubble, it turns out, is where we have been living all the while. The bubble is that delusion of isolation under which we have laboured for so long. The bubble has cut us off from life on the only planet we have, or are ever likely to have. The bubble is civilisation.
Consider the structures on which that bubble has been built. Its foundations are geological: coal, oil, gas — millions upon millions of years of ancient sunlight, dragged from the depths of the planet and burned with abandon. On this base, the structure stands. Move upwards, and you pass through a jumble of supporting horrors: battery chicken sheds; industrial abattoirs; burning forests; beam-trawled ocean floors; dynamited reefs; hollowed-out mountains; wasted soil. Finally, on top of all these unseen layers, you reach the well-tended surface where you and I stand: unaware, or uninterested, in what goes on beneath us; demanding that the authorities keep us in the manner to which we have been accustomed; occasion- ally feeling twinges of guilt that lead us to buy organic chickens or locally-produced lettuces; yet for the most part glutted, but not sated, on the fruits of the horrors on which our lifestyles depend.
We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age — the age of ecocide. To name it thus is not to presume the outcome, but simply to describe a process which is underway. The ground, the sea, the air, the elemental backdrops to our existence — all these our economics has taken for granted, to be used as a bottomless tip, endlessly able to dilute and disperse the tailings of our extraction, production, consumption. The sheer scale of the sky or the weight of a swollen river makes it hard to imagine that creatures as flimsy as you and I could do that much damage. Philip Larkin gave voice to this attitude, and the creeping, worrying end of it in his poem Going, Going:
Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?
Nearly forty years on from Larkin’s words, doubt is what all of us seem to feel, all of the time. Too much filth has been chucked in the sea and into the soil and into the atmosphere to make any other feeling sensible. The doubt, and the facts, have paved the way for a worldwide movement of environmental politics, which aimed, at least in its early, raw form, to challenge the myths of development and progress head-on. But time has not been kind to the greens. Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naive as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.
‘Denial’ is a hot word, heavy with connotations. When it is used to brand the remaining rump of climate change sceptics, they object noisily to the association with those who would rewrite the history of the Holocaust. Yet the focus on this dwindling group may serve as a distraction from a far larger form of denial, in its psychoanalytic sense. Freud wrote of the inability of people to hear things which did not fit with the way they saw themselves and the world. We put ourselves through all kinds of inner contortions, rather than look plainly at those things which challenge our fundamental understanding of the world.
Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become — and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch. Centuries of hubris block our ears like wax plugs; we cannot hear the message which reality is screaming at us. For all our doubts and discontents, we are still wired to an idea of his- tory in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present. The assumption remains that things must continue in their current direction: the sense of crisis only smudges the meaning of that ‘must’. No longer a natural inevitability, it becomes an urgent necessity: we must find a way to go on having supermarkets and superhighways. We cannot contemplate the alternative.
And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.
Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?
We believe it is time to look down.
Without mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by a partial answer, there can be no stories—only confessions, com- muniqués, memories and fragments of autobiographical fantasy which for the moment pass as novels.
John Berger, ‘A Story for Aesop’, from Keeping a Rendezvous
If we are indeed teetering on the edge of a massive change in how we live, in how human society itself is constructed, and in how we relate to the rest of the world, then we were led to this point by the stories we have told ourselves — above all, by the story of civilisation.
This story has many variants, religious and secular, scientific, economic and mystic. But all tell of humanity’s original transcendence of its animal beginnings, our growing mastery over a ‘nature’ to which we no longer belong, and the glorious future of plenty and prosperity which will follow when this mastery is complete. It is the story of human centrality, of a species destined to be lord of all it surveys, unconfined by the limits that apply to other, lesser creatures.
What makes this story so dangerous is that, for the most part, we have forgotten that it is a story. It has been told so many times by those who see themselves as rationalists, even scientists; heirs to the Enlightenment’s legacy — a legacy which includes the denial of the role of stories in making the world.
Humans have always lived by stories, and those with skill in telling them have been treated with respect and, often, a certain wariness. Beyond the limits of reason, reality remains mysterious, as incapable of being approached directly as a hunter’s quarry. With stories, with art, with symbols and layers of meaning, we stalk those elusive aspects of reality that go undreamed of in our philosophy. The storyteller weaves the mysterious into the fabric of life, lacing it with the comic, the tragic, the obscene, making safe paths through dangerous territory.
Yet as the myth of civilisation deepened its grip on our thinking, borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown. The old tales by which generations had made sense of life’s subtleties and strangenesses were bowdlerised and packed off to the nursery. Religion, that bag of myths and mysteries, birthplace of the theatre, was straightened out into a framework of universal laws and moral account-keeping. The dream visions of the Middle Ages became the nonsense stories of Victorian childhood. In the age of the novel, stories were no longer the way to approach the deep truths of the world, so much as a way to pass time on a train journey. It is hard, today, to imagine that the word of a poet was once feared by a king.
Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories. Through television, film, novels and video games, we may be more thoroughly bombarded with narrative material than any people that ever lived. What is peculiar, however, is the carelessness with which these stories are channelled at us — as entertainment, a distraction from daily life, something to hold our attention to the other side of the ad break. There is little sense that these things make up the equipment by which we navigate reality. On the other hand, there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders. These are not presented as stories at all, but as direct accounts of how the world is. Choose between competing versions, then fight with those who chose differently. The ensuing conflicts play out on early morning radio, in afternoon debates and late night television pundit wars. And yet, for all the noise, what is striking is how much the opposing sides agree on: all their stories are only variants of the larger story of human centrality, of our ever-expanding control over ‘nature’, our right to perpetual economic growth, our ability to transcend all limits.
So we find ourselves, our ways of telling unbalanced, trapped inside a runaway narrative, headed for the worst kind of encounter with reality. In such a moment, writers, artists, poets and storytellers of all kinds have a critical role to play. Creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces: without it, the project of civilisation is inconceivable, yet no part of life remains so untamed and undomesticated. Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings. It is time to pick up the threads and make the stories new, as they must always be made new, starting from where we are.
Mainstream art in the West has long been about shock; about busting taboos, about Getting Noticed. This has gone on for so long that it has become common to assert that in these ironic, exhausted, post-everything times, there are no taboos left to bust. But there is one.
The last taboo is the myth of civilisation. It is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species. It is where our vision and our self-belief intertwine with our reckless refusal to face the reality of our position on this Earth. It has led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked. We believe they must be decoupled if anything is to remain.
We believe that artists — which is to us the most welcoming of words, taking under its wing writers of all kinds, painters, musicians, sculptors, poets, designers, creators, makers of things, dreamers of dreams — have a responsibility to begin the process of decoupling. We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken — and that only artists can do it.
Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? Where are the poems that have adjusted their scope to the scale of this challenge? Where are the novels that probe beyond the country house or the city centre? What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?
If the answers to these questions have been scarce up to now, it is perhaps both because the depth of collective denial is so great, and because the challenge is so very daunting. We are daunted by it, ourselves. But we believe it needs to be risen to. We believe that art must look over the edge, face the world that is coming with a steady eye, and rise to the challenge of ecocide with a challenge of its own: an artistic response to the crumbling of the empires of the mind.
This response we call Uncivilised art, and we are interested in one branch of it in particular: Uncivilised writing. Uncivilised writing is writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence. Apes who have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project. Apes whose project has been to tame, to control, to subdue or to destroy — to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when they exploit or destroy their fellow creatures.
Against the civilising project, which has become the progenitor of ecocide, Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective—we remain human and, even now, are not quite ashamed — but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves.
It sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation — and us — into perspective. Writing that comes not, as most writing still does, from the self-absorbed and self-congratulatory metropolitan centres of civilisation but from somewhere on its wilder fringes. Somewhere woody and weedy and largely avoided, from where insistent, uncomfortable truths about ourselves drift in; truths which we’re not keen on hearing. Writing which unflinchingly stares us down, however uncomfortable this may prove.
It might perhaps be just as useful to explain what Uncivilised writing is not. It is not environmental writing, for there is much of that about already, and most of it fails to jump the barrier which marks the limit of our collective human ego; much of it, indeed, ends up shoring-up that ego, and helping us to persist in our civilisational delusions. It is not nature writing, for there is no such thing as nature as distinct from people, and to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the attitude which has brought us here. And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.
Uncivilised writing is more rooted than any of these. Above all, it is determined to shift our worldview, not to feed into it. It is writing for outsiders. If you want to be loved, it might be best not to get involved, for the world, at least for a time, will resolutely refuse to listen.
A salutary example of this last point can be found in the fate of one of the twentieth century’s most significant yet most neglected poets. Robinson Jeffers was writing Uncivilised verse seventy years before this manifesto was thought of, though he did not call it that. In his early poetic career, Jeffers was a star: he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, read his poems in the US Library of Congress and was respected for the alternative he offered to the Modernist juggernaut. Today his work is left out of anthologies, his name is barely known and his politics are regarded with suspicion. Read Jeffers’ later work and you will see why. His crime was to deliberately puncture humanity’s sense of self-importance. His punishment was to be sent into a lonely literary exile from which, forty years after his death, he has still not been allowed to return.
But Jeffers knew what he was in for. He knew that nobody, in an age of ‘consumer choice’, wanted to be told by this stone-faced prophet of the California cliffs that ‘it is good for man … To know that his needs and nature are no more changed in fact in ten thousand years than the beaks of eagles.’ He knew that no comfortable liberal wanted to hear his angry warning, issued at the height of the Second World War: ‘Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy / And the dogs that talk revolution / Drunk with talk, liars and believers … / Long live freedom, and damn the ideologies.’ His vision of a world in which humanity was doomed to destroy its surroundings and eventually itself (‘I would burn my right hand in a  slow fire / To change the future … I should do foolishly’) was furiously rejected in the rising age of consumer democracy which he also predicted (‘Be happy, adjust your economics to the new abundance…’)
Jeffers, as his poetry developed, developed a philosophy too. He called it ‘inhumanism.’ It was, he wrote:
a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence…This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist … It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy… it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.
The shifting of emphasis from man to notman: this is the aim of Uncivilised writing. To ‘unhumanise our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’ This is not a rejection of our humanity — it is an affirmation of the wonder of what it means to be truly human. It is to accept the world for what it is and to make our home here, rather than dreaming of relocating to the stars, or existing in a Man-forged bubble and pretending to ourselves that there is nothing outside it to which we have any connection at all.
This, then, is the literary challenge of our age. So far, few have taken it up. The signs of the times flash out in urgent neon, but our literary lions have better things to read. Their art remains stuck in its own civilised bubble. The idea of civilisation is entangled, right down to its semantic roots, with city-dwelling, and this provokes a thought: if our writers seem unable to find new stories which might lead us through the times ahead, is this not a function of their metropolitan mentality? The big names of contemporary literature are equally at home in the fashionable quarters of London or New York, and their writing reflects the prejudices of the placeless, transnational elite to which they belong.
The converse also applies. Those voices which tell other stories tend to be rooted in a sense of place. Think of John Berger’s novels and essays from the Haute Savoie, or the depths explored by Alan Garner within a day’s walk of his birthplace in Cheshire. Think of Wendell Berry or WS Merwin, Mary Oliver or Cormac McCarthy. Those whose writings  approach the shores of the Uncivilised are those who know their place, in the physical sense, and who remain wary of the siren cries of metrovincial fashion and civilised excitement.
If we name particular writers whose work embodies what we are arguing for, the aim is not to place them more prominently on the existing map of literary reputations. Rather, as Geoff Dyer has said of Berger, to take their work seriously is to redraw the maps altogether — not only the map of literary reputations, but those by which we navigate all areas of life.
Even here, we go carefully, for cartography itself is not a neutral activity. The drawing of maps is full of colonial echoes. The civilised eye seeks to view the world from above, as something we can stand over and survey. The Uncivilised writer knows the world is, rather, something we are enmeshed in — a patchwork and a framework of places, experiences, sights, smells, sounds. Maps can lead, but can also mislead. Our maps must be the kind sketched in the dust with a stick, washed away by the next rain. They can be read only by those who ask to see them, and they cannot be bought.
This, then, is Uncivilised writing. Human, inhuman, stoic and entirely natural. Humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and the easy answer. Walking the boundaries and reopening old conversations. Apart but engaged, its practitioners always willing to get their hands dirty; aware, in fact, that dirt is essential; that keyboards should be tapped by those with soil under their fingernails and wilderness in their heads.
We tried ruling the world; we tried acting as God’s steward, then we tried ushering in the human revolution, the age of reason and isolation. We failed in all of it, and our failure destroyed more than we were even aware of. The time for civilisation is past. Uncivilisation, which knows its flaws because it has participated in them; which sees unflinchingly and bites down hard as it records — this is the project we must embark on now. This is the challenge for writing — for art — to meet. This is what we are here for.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
William Wordsworth, ‘The Tables Turned’
A movement needs a beginning. An expedition needs a base camp. A project needs a headquarters. Uncivilisation is our project, and the promotion of Uncivilised writing — and art — needs a base. We present this manifesto not simply because we have something to say—who doesn’t?—but because we have something to do. We hope this pamphlet has created a spark. If so, we have a responsibility to fan the flames. This is what we intend to do. But we can’t do it alone.
This is a moment to ask deep questions and to ask them urgently. All around us, shifts are under way which suggest that our whole way of living is already passing into history. It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side. We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths.
If we are right, it will be necessary to go literally beyond the Pale. Out- side the stockades we have built — the city walls, the original marker in stone or wood that first separated ‘man’ from ‘nature’. Beyond the gates, out into the wilderness, is where we are headed. And there we shall make for the higher ground for, as Jeffers wrote, ‘when the cities lie at the monster’s feet / There are left the mountains.’ We shall make the pilgrimage to the poet’s Dark Mountain, to the great, immovable, inhuman heights which were here before us and will be here after, and from their slopes we shall look back upon the pinprick lights of the distant cities and gain perspective on who we are and what we have become.
This is the Dark Mountain project. It starts here.
Where will it end? Nobody knows. Where will it lead? We are not sure. Its first incarnation, launched alongside this manifesto, is a website, which points the way to the ranges. It will contain thoughts, scribblings, jottings, ideas; it will work up the project of Uncivilisation, and invite all comers to join the discussion.
Then it will become a physical object, because virtual reality is, ultimately, no reality at all. It will become a journal, of paper, card, paint and print; of ideas, thoughts, observations, mumblings; new stories which will help to define the project — the school, the movement — of Uncivilised writing. It will collect the words and the images of those who consider themselves Uncivilised and have something to say about it; who want to help us attack the citadels. It will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty — like truth — not only exists, but still matters.
Beyond that… all is currently hidden from view. It is a long way across the plains, and things become obscured by distance. There are great white spaces on this map still. The civilised would fill them in; we are not so sure we want to. But we cannot resist exploring them, navigating by rumours and by the stars. We don’t know quite what we will find. We are slightly nervous. But we will not turn back, for we believe that something enormous may be out there, waiting to meet us.
Uncivilisation, like civilisation, is not something that can be created alone. Climbing the Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise. We need bearers, sherpas, guides, fellow adventurers. We need to rope ourselves together for safety. At present, our form is loose and nebulous. It will firm itself up as we climb. Like the best writing, we need to be shaped by the ground beneath our feet, and what we become will be shaped, at least in part, by what we find on our journey.
If you would like to climb at least some of the way with us, we would like to hear from you. We feel sure there are others out there who would relish joining us on this expedition.
Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.
‘We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’
reading for 5/24 is anticipated to be a pro-tech chapter from bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism
on lew’s and daniel’s suggestion, we’re reading a berardi article, biopolitics and connective mutation, this week.
Unlike orthodox Marxists, Berardi’s autonomist theories draw on psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis and communication theory to show how subjectivity and desire are bound up with the functioning of the capitalism system, rather than portraying events such as the financial crisis of 2008 merely as an example of the inherently contradictory logic of capitalist accumulation. Thus, he argues against privileging labour in critique and says that “the solution to the economic difficulty of the situation cannot be solved with economic means: the solution is not economic.” Human emotions and embodied communication becomes increasingly central to the production and consumption patterns that sustain capital flows in post-industrial society, and as such Berardi uses the concepts of “cognitariat” and “info labour” to analyze this psycho-social process. Among Berardi’s other concerns are cultural representations and expectations about the future — from proto-Fascist Futurism to post-modern cyberpunk (1993). This represents a greater concern with ideas and cultural expectations than the determinist-materialist expression of a Marxism which is often confined to purely economic or systemic analysis.
there is a supplemental reading that we agreed on, but i can’t remember what it is. check back later in case someone reminds me.
By Tasos Sagris of VOID NETWORK
I find myself in the courtyard of the School of Fine Arts in Athens, Greece. It’s May 25, 2011, a hot summer day. A five-day anarchist and anti-authoritarian festival starts in six hours and I am scrambling to prepare all the small details I have in mind. I’m working alone.
I walk across the campus to bring an electrician from one stage to the other. In Spain, people have been on the streets for ten days now, after 75 years of silence. They are sending us signals of revolt, bringing the flame of liberation from the Arab countries to European land. We are just setting up for our festival: sound systems for three stages and two areas for public discussions and lectures; there is a theater stage, a book fair area, and workshop areas. We are about 30 people from two affinity groups constructing an area for 12,000 people. We are acting like a Spartan army (totally paranoid ideas about the amazing abilities of a small group of determined fighters). The mind is a spaceship. People travel to other planets during the summer nights for thousands of years now. We are on our way to anarchy! Sometimes it seems far away; sometimes it is suddenly all around us.
This same afternoon, there is an assembly behind the Acropolis for people hoping to bring the flame from Spain to Greece. For a year now, a small weekly anarchist assembly has met in Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament to talk about the crises. At the new assembly this afternoon, people decide to go and camp in Syntagma following the calls for action coming from Spain, Tunisia, and Egypt. They publish a call for others to join them.
We can do an incredible amount of logistical work to prepare a space for people, but if the spirit of revolt draws them somewhere else, the important thing is to be there! We can spend our whole lives building a theoretical argument or an ideological position or an infrastructure for the movement—but when a revolt is taking place, we have to be ready to abandon what keeps us apart and find a way to meet each other, to spread beneficial ideas and revolutionary practices to those in rebellion.
What appeared that day was a tropical storm, an ocean arising in front of our eyes, vast and wild. 100,000 people gathered suddenly around the parliament, shouting the classic anarchist slogan against democracy, “We Want to Burn, We Want to Burn the Parliament, this Bordello!” Nobody was at the festival for the afternoon lectures; everybody was at Syntagma. More than 8000 people arrived late at night for the concerts and the techno-trance stage. The crowd was in a frenzy, sharing an unfamiliar and wild enthusiasm.
We went to camp at Syntagma with Void Network. We announced this in the weekly anarchist assembly “For the Self-Organization of the Society,” which we had been participating in for three years already. Some of the groups refused to come to Syntagma—they called it petit bourgeois, they kept a distance from it, just watching. Other anarchist, autonomous, and anti-authoritarian groups and individuals stayed at Syntagma all summer. We stayed there too, spreading anarchist ideas and practices among countless desperate people, participating in the organization of the Athens General Assembly to guarantee that everyone would have an equal opportunity to express himself or herself, to ensure that no political party or ultra-left group could manipulate the decisions, to keep leftists from taking over the movement.
Other groups came only for the three days of riots. The riots were vast… In the middle of financial collapse, in the middle of inhuman austerity measures, unemployment, and unbelievable state repression… this was one of the best summers of my life.
When the Greek government signed a contract with the IMF and Central European Bank in 2010, agreeing to austerity measures, it gave everyone the chance to see how global economic interests control representative democracy. People felt betrayed by politicians they had believed in for 40 years, politicians they had put in parliament to represent their interests. Furious, they imagined burning down the Parliament; many of them even tried to. Metal bars and 24/7 riot police protected the Parliament for three years, representing the final obstacle between the people and the economic interests that govern our lives.
The collapse of faith in representation was also a kind of emancipation. The obedient victims of superior logic and common sense shook free of the leadership of the politicians and the manipulation of the journalists. The unions and parties lost their influence. A new individual and collective intelligence and liberation arose in place of the old identities. Wild strikes took place after decades of apathy and obedience among what we call the general public, millions of people took part in wild riots—shouting first against themselves for believing in the politicians for so many years, and then against the politicians.
The people took a step. This is what happened during the summer of 2011 in Greece and many other countries.
I find myself in my mother’s house. It is June 2011. A 65-year-old social democrat, she wonders why people didn’t succeed in storming the parliament yet during the days they have been encircling it. She is afraid to go out in the streets because of the tear gas, but she always asks me, “Maybe I could come also to the camp during the daytime?” My uncle and my aunt are also there, members of the Socialist Party (PASOK) since it was established in 1973; now it governs the country. My aunt is 62. With her eyes shining, she describes how last night the limousine of a famous minister of PASOK passed her outside the Parliament. She punched the back of the limousine, then ran behind it with other people to smash its windows and punch the minister. She feels liberation—she feels free! She took a step…
But were the assemblies that happened in Syntagma liberating, in the end? Or were they “directly democratic” in a way that led directly to the parties of Syriza and Golden Dawn gaining huge numbers of new adherents, for different but fundamentally similar reasons?
People expressed themselves through the assemblies all around the country. Common people who had never taken part in any kind of public event spoke openly about their deepest fears and their most precious desires, in front of thousands upon thousands of people, with megaphones to guarantee that everyone could hear their voices clearly. It was like some kind of group therapy, a catharsis from the delusions of the past, a jump into public space, an expedition into the vast possibilities of social power. It was a wonderful summer when everyone was staying out in the streets talking with everyone about everything.
And then democracy was re-established.
Most of the anarchists were absent, anyway, committing their biggest political mistake so far this century. In any case, we—the anarchists of our times—do not yet have anarchist answers for most of the problems our societies face. We know very well how to deconstruct the ideas of our enemies, but our worst enemy is our own inability to bring our ideals from the clouds of anarchism down to the rough and dirty ground of anarchy.
Under these circumstances, with no other concrete options, people felt obliged—or forced—to choose between the party of social control offering them a totalitarian leader for a father figure, or the social-democratic party promising them free schools, hospitals, and some amount of protection from the wild neoliberal sharks that govern this world.
And so, after speaking in the assemblies, after participating in “direct” democracy, people got in line once again to vote, to reaffirm the democracy of the state. Every step you take towards freedom becomes an obstacle to going further. Democracy itself is an obstacle.
The democracy of our times, the highest achievement of bourgeois civilization, has built-in properties that go all the way back to its origins here in Athens thousands of years ago.
The Founding Fathers of every nation imagined themselves as the governors of uneducated savages, perverted masses of poor people ready to commit all kinds of crimes as soon as they were not controlled. Democracy was constructed by people with a political and economic interest in keeping the masses under control by means of words rather than the sword (and with the sword whenever words are not enough). Representative democracy is a system of mind control offering a pseudo-reality of freedom in which you cannot have any serious influence over the fundamental decisions about your life.
The Founding Fathers of democracy—like all fathers, perhaps—fear the critical thinking of their children. Democracy keeps people stupid: we are forced to remain in a childish state of mind, participating in obligatory social structures in which we cannot realize the totality of our capabilities and desires. There is no need to know the exact details of the decisions that determine your life: you have just to vote for who seems good enough to govern your life. Democracy spreads corruption: the leaders drain the resources of the community. Democracy keeps people apathetic. Nobody gives a damn about your opinion; you are just one statistic among millions. Democracy will never teach you to speak in public, just to remain silent and listen to your governors speak. You are there to applaud. Throughout your entire political life, you have been absent, represented.
Democracy keeps you afraid, afraid of the enemies of democracy that have hidden within your tribe, your democratic community, your nation. Democracy created borders in your life and now you have to protect these borders with your own body. The borders are imaginary, social inventions, but your dead body on the battleground is real. Democracy excludes the rest of humanity from your community and it prepares an army, including you, to kill all the excluded ones. The moment you refuse to kill for the sake of democracy, you too are excluded.
This system has an amazing ability to reproduce itself. It produces schools, hospitals, theaters, kindergartens, military camps, university campuses, galleries, museums, and amusement parks. You can spend your whole life inside those institutions, and if you try to escape from them, you will probably end up in an asylum for homeless people, a jail, or a psychiatric clinic (all of which are also democratic institutions). The flipside of this amazing ability to reproduce itself is that democracy is unable to surpass itself, to evolve into something different, in the same way that the Soviet Union never arrived at a communist paradise. Listen to what the democratic states say against those who revolt: “Nobody can blackmail democracy.”
So democracy never changes. Statutes and politicians may be replaced, but it is always the same oligarchic system, aristocratic in its core. Democracy is always searching, through elections and business contracts and nepotism, for the best ones to perpetuate it.
This should come as no surprise. Democracy is a conservative tribal method by which certain ancient Greek tribes reproduced themselves. It will never allow you to become different until you escape from the tribe. And today, when the control of the capitalist market and democratic state are absolute all around the world, there is no other way to escape democracy except to destroy it.
Even knowing all of this, some people defend democracy. They want to find a form of democracy that doesn’t end up in oligarchy, just like the 21st century communists who are searching for communist systems that don’t lead to totalitarianism. But the Founding Fathers of all nations stand over democrats of all kinds, looking on approvingly as normality reasserts itself—the same conditions of exploitation, new faces in the same old positions of authority.
This world will never change as long as we are afraid to cut the roots of this order. Democracy is the final alternative for all who are afraid to step into the unknown territory of their own desires, their own power. Likewise, the demand for “real” democracy is the last way for social movements to legitimize themselves in the supposed “social sphere” (and to avoid criminalization). Just as it is the final step, democracy is also the final obstacle to new possibilities arising in social movements.
Could any form of democracy save us from democracy?
Direct democracy offers us an alternative way to govern our lives. But is this really what we need? Do we want to reproduce the limits of the old world on a smaller scale? Do we want the “general assembly” to decide about our lives? Or do we want to expand our lives into new forms of self-determination and open sharing of creativity, to offer our power freely for the benefit of all humanity, however we (and those with whom we share our lives) see fit?
When I take part in the assembly of Void Network, I have to take into account the needs and interests of all my comrades, and our group has to take into account the needs and desires of the greatest possible number of people in this world. If we do not take care of each other, there can be no Void Network, and if we do not take care of the people outside our group, there will be no connection between us and the world. There is no general assembly that could know better than we do how we can make the most of our abilities to benefit the people around us. This is the difference between an affinity group, which produces a collective and expansive power, and a democratic assembly, which concentrates power outside our lives and relationships, alienating us from ourselves and each other.
Direct democracy is supposed to get rid of the apathy produced by representation, since it appears as a “participatory” form of democracy. But is the idea that we will have an assembly of millions of people? Would such an assembly really be capable of offering us freedom and equality? Each of us would just feel like a statistic in it as we waited for days for our turn to speak. On the other hand, if we reduce that form to the miniscule level of a neighborhood assembly, don’t we trap ourselves in a microcosm like oversized ants?
Any kind of “direct democracy” reproduces the same conditions as representative democracy, just on a smaller scale. The majority suppresses the minority, driving them into apathy. Often, you don’t even try to express your opinion, as you know you will have no chance to put it into practice. Often, you are afraid to speak, as you know that you will be humiliated by the majority. Homogeneity is the ultimate imperative of any democratic procedure, “direct” or representational—a homogeneity that ends up as two final opinions (the majority and minority), losing the vast richness of human intelligence and sensibility, erasing all the complexity and diversity of human needs and desires.
This is why even directly democratic assemblies can end up deciding to carry out inhuman genocides, like the one ancient Athens inflicted upon Mylos in 416 BC. Excluded people have been enslaved and raped as a result of direct democratic decisions. Direct democracy is “members only.” Because it is smaller, it excludes even more people than representative democracy—producing isolated bubbles that fight each other like the city-states of ancient Greece. Everybody is an outsider, a foreigner, a possible enemy; that’s why the community has to build armies to defend itself and you have to die to protect the opinion of the majority even if you disagree with it. Whoever will not go along with the decision must be punished—like Socrates, the world-famous victim of democracy, and thousands of others. The charismatic leaders find the best possible direct connection with their followers, and the democratic mechanisms for manipulating public opinion work directly better than ever! Direct democracy will never liberate us from democracy.
Months later, I find myself at my mother’s house again. It is early in September 2011, a few days before Occupy Wall Street begins. I am sending out emails to comrades in the USA, urging them to expand the encampments all over the states, to spread anarchist ideas and methodologies in the Occupy movement assemblies.
My uncle is also there. As I am looking at my screen, he says to me, “We decided now to move”—I look up at him—“away from PASOK, to try the European communist party of SYRIZA.” I feel terror, because I know that when he says, “We decided,” he speaks for about two million people. It’s as if he knows them all individually—they are the betrayed followers of PASOK, and he was in the social-democrat party from the first day to the last. Syriza had only 4% of the votes just one day ago. I am looking at him, seeing two million zombies walk just a few steps from one party to another. I want to shout, “YOU HAVE TO MOVE FURTHER! EVERY STEP IS A NEW OBSTACLE! YOU CAN’T STOP THERE…”
Anarchists have a lot to do before we can speak to this kind of people. They are the realists, these people who understand politics as the management of reality.
I imagine history as a beautiful girl: she smiles, and riots explode in Athens. I feel history going away from Athens after staying a long time in my city, now that the Parliament has found a new way to reestablish delusional hopes in people’s minds. Three and a half years later, in 2015, the streets are still silent and the Euro-communists of SYRIZA win the elections with just one word for a campaign slogan: HOPE. (The last thing left in Pandora’s box.) To me, it seems more like DESPERATION.
One of the first decisions the new government of Syriza makes is to remove the protective metal bars and riot police from around the Parliament. The Parliament is safe again. Democracy never changes. It just reforms and reproduces itself.
Every step is a new obstacle. 2600 years ago in Greece and two centuries ago in Europe the struggle for democracy liberated the poverty-stricken masses from their misery. They found themselves some years later in exactly the same conditions—in eternal war with all possible outsiders, plus the right to vote for it. Christianity and Islam attracted millions of poor people with promises of social justice and eternal love; some years later they became ideological tools for massive genocides all around the world, absolute enemies of human emancipation and obstacles to the arising of human spirituality. The Communist Party, proclaimed to be the voice of all those without voices, became the worst enemy of freedom of expression. Anarchists became ministers and governors in the Spanish revolution—and the CNT, the great organization for the liberation of the workers, organized them to work at the factories for their whole lives until their heroic deaths. It is very possible to sacrifice our lives to liberate ourselves from the old world’s prisons and find ourselves entrapped in a new high-quality jail.
Anarcho-communism, an emancipatory vision that we all share in Void Network, is an old vision of a world without money and without borders. But it needs to be updated for the 21st century—otherwise, it will remain in our minds like a mythological ghost, another obstacle. If we want a world without money, this means we have to transform labor into open-source creativity, to turn workplaces into beautiful parks of voluntary creative participation in a global web that freely distributes all material and mental production. Life has to be organized around the production of desires and the enjoyment of needs. If we want a world without borders, that means a world without “foreigners”—so you will not be a “stranger” anywhere in the world at any moment of your life. We have to transform “societies” into open and inclusive communities that will be fully connected in a global network, so that everyone is welcome and useful anywhere and anytime on this planet, not divided into isolated, self-sufficient, xenophobic groups. We have to open “ourselves” to the difference of all the “others.”
In the eight decades since the collapse of the Spanish Revolution, anarchists have avoided offering solid plans for anarchist revolution on this scale. Meanwhile, during those years, capitalism has evolved to levels that the revolutionaries of late 19th century could not have imagined. Global capitalism is here, global anarchism is not.
The only possible way that an anarchist revolution could happen is on a planetary scale—not on a local scale, not on isolated islands. Even if it will take 200 years for an anarchist revolution to extend to every corner of this world, this has to be envisioned, planned, and realized.
If we reduce the scale of our organizational structures to tiny neighborhood assemblies or miniscule eco-communities, we will find ourselves dealing with problems that pass through our small community like the huge ocean waves pass over a small, fragile fishing boat. Neo-totalitarianism will never leave us alone in alternative-lifestyle eco-paradisiacal bubbles (though neoliberalism might sell vacations there to the rich). We cannot close our eyes to the suffering of this world.
On the other hand, if we permit old or new forms of authoritarian mass structures to oblige us to embrace their notions of efficiency and practicality, we will end up in the belly of a new bureaucratic monster. We need a global network of communities on struggle, a network of millions of flexible groups ready to fight against totalitarianism, to create public liberated zones, to defend them against their enemies and connect them in a revolutionary wave of global social emancipation—and to do all this without central control.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that
The Greeks had the notion of a consensus or a faculty of “common sense” that translated each sense into each other sense, and conferred consciousness on man. Today, when we have extended all parts of our bodies and senses by technology, we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a worldwide consensus. When we have achieved a worldwide fragmentation, it is not unnatural to think about a worldwide integration. Such a universality of conscious being for mankind was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be united in an inclusive consciousness.
Could anarchy—total freedom, absolute social and economic equality, and global fellowship—offer an inclusive consciousness to fragmented humanity for the 21st century?
It is not simple even to begin thinking about it. And if we want a vision of emancipation that is created socially and collectively, we have to avoid simplistic solutions and the leadership of specific individuals. For example, Karl Marx was a very smart man, but Marxism is an obstacle for free thinking.
In any case, we are anarchists. We are fighting against the state and capitalism to open passages—practices, strategies, and methodologies—that lead to total freedom, social equality, mutual aid, and self-determination. We have to find a way to connect with the many, in order that together we may transform the conditions that produce our reality. Against homogeneity, we have to empower diversity; against certitude, we have to allow all truths to come true; against exclusion, we want to defend the stranger, the queer, the old, the young, the freak, the unknown; against borders, we want to live openheartedly; against atomization, to care for others, to learn from each other, to carry out our great plans and achieve our ultimate goals. Otherwise, established political authority and economic interests will reassert themselves in endless versions of the same conditions. This world will never change until we dare to live free, to share everything, to spread anarchy!
some preparatory questions:
these readings are pro-urban, with a lot of passionate thinking about how cities constrain and also liberate people (or at least have a lot of power to liberate people, if some major things changed). here on the west coast, that is a fairly unusual take these days. mostly people talk about cities being bad places, to raise children, to get away from capitalism and/or the state (ha), to have better kinds of relationships, etc.
what does it look like to take a modern positive view of urban life? how do we think cities could change to be liberatory spaces? what impact would flexible and mobile housing have on cityscapes and our imaginations?
Week 2 – activism: February 2nd
On the Poverty
Critique of the new left
Week 3 – spectacular reality: February 9th
All the Kings Men
Week 4 – desire: February 16th
Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life
Instructions for an Insurrection
Response to a Questionnaire from the Center for Socio-Experimental Art
All readings are from the SI anthology